Psychedelic meditation might sound like an unexpected combo, but psychedelic trips and meditative practices have common threads: Both have been shown to change how a person thinks about themselves and the world around them.
Research in psychedelic meditation is in its early days, but preliminary investigations have found fascinating directions for future study. Combining psychedelics and meditation has been shown to produce deeper meditative states, change brain connectivity, and even promote positive changes in mood and behavior.
Here’s what we know about psychedelic meditation so far.
The Neuroscience of Psychedelics and Meditation
Both psychedelics and meditation can change how your brain behaves. It’s not a simple on-off switch, though. Psychedelics and meditation work differently on the brain, which we’ll discuss below.
Drug, dose, meditation style, and experience level can also change the effects of psychedelics and meditation. So, it’s too early to say that meditation on acid is the next big thing—we simply don’t know enough to conclude anything yet.
Classical psychedelics (including DMT, LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin) stimulate parts of the brain called serotonin receptors. These receptors play a role in your sensory perception, memory, and sense of self, among other attributes.1 2 Stimulating serotonin receptors causes a psychedelic trip, aka an altered state of consciousness.
Researchers believe this activity also promotes neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to adapt to new experiences.3 full That’s one reason psychedelics seem to enhance talk therapy’s effectiveness: They make a person more receptive to changing their thoughts and behaviors.
Psychedelics also play a role in the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a brain region related to higher-level thinking, like self-reflection and thoughts about the future.4 Ayahuasca, psilocybin and LSD have been shown to reduce DMN activity, which might explain how these drugs can help change the way a person thinks about themselves. However, this is an emerging research area, which means there’s a lot we don’t yet know.
Mindfulness meditation targets areas of the brain related to interoception—your brain’s perception of your body’s state—and executive control.3 Like psychedelics, meditation has been shown to reduce DMN activity, as well as mind-wandering—which suggests stronger cognitive control and attention.5 6 7 8
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation is associated with structural changes in the brain, such as increased gray matter density in the hippocampus and amygdala—brain regions that are important for learning, memory, anxiety, and stress.9
It’s important to note that most of this research focuses on experienced practitioners, which means they can enter meditative states easier than the general population. Accordingly, evidence suggests that the benefits of meditation are related to a person’s practice frequency and style, among other factors.10
Meditation has been shown to produce discernible changes in the brain. So, too, have psychedelics. What happens when you combine the two?
What Is Psychedelic Meditation?
Psychedelic meditation isn’t a formal part of psychedelic therapy, but several researchers have investigated what happens when psychedelics and meditation collide.
A randomized, double-blind clinical trial administered psilocybin to 75 participants who also enrolled in a meditation program. After six months, the participants who received ??20–30 mg of psilocybin—high enough to cause a mystical experience—reported positive changes in factors such as gratitude, a sense of purpose, and forgiveness.11
It’s also possible that psychedelics and meditation could interfere with each other. In a 2020 review, the authors noted that, by improving cognitive control, meditation might reduce psilocybin’s ability to shift a person’s mindset.3
Researched psychedelics for meditation
So, should everyone sign up for LSD meditation? Not so fast.
Currently, there isn’t a significant amount of scientific evidence behind psychedelic meditation, which means it’s unclear whether or not one psychedelic is better than another—let alone how it relates to psychedelic therapy. Most of the literature points to directions for future research.
However, psilocybin is among the most-studied psychedelics. For example, in a review of mindfulness meditation and psilocybin in treating depression, researchers found that meditation and psilocybin have similar effects on “mood, social skills, and neuroplasticity.” The researchers proposed that combining psilocybin-assisted therapy and meditation might help people cope with the loss of control during a psychedelic experience and, by extension, reduce the risk of a bad trip.3
In preliminary studies, Ayahuasca has been shown to promote elements of mindfulness, such as acceptance and present-moment awareness.14 15 However, more rigorously designed trials are needed. As for other psychedelics, like DMT and meditation, peer-reviewed studies aren’t yet available.
Psychedelics and Meditation: What About Safety?
Psychedelics are generally considered safe at standard doses. Except for high doses of ketamine, psychedelics aren’t physically addictive.
However, as with any drug, psychedelics come with a certain amount of risk.
- Drug interactions: Psychedelics can interact with certain medications and substances, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), SSRIs, and alcohol. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to prescription medication.
- Other risks: People can react negatively to psychedelics. For example, LSD can cause anxiety, increased heart rate, and intense thoughts and emotions—bad news if you’re in a negative headspace. Difficult experiences (aka “bad trips”) can feel overwhelming and frightening.
One note on that last point—you can set yourself up for success by monitoring your set and setting.
“Set” refers to your mindset going into the trip, aka your openness to the experience. “Setting” refers to your environment. Are you in a comfortable, safe space that will allow you to sit with your thoughts, or are you in a crowded room with many distractions?
Additionally, plan on having a trip sitter during your psychedelic experience. This person will sit with you during your session, helping to guide you, keep you safe, and remind you of your intention.
How to Do Psychedelic Meditation
Because psychedelic meditation is such a new area, there isn’t a single “right” way to do it. You don’t necessarily have to take a psychedelic and then sit cross-legged in meditation.
If you’re interested in trippy meditation, one option is following the procedures in published research. For example, in a study of psilocybin use among novice meditators, researchers gave participants two doses of psychedelics one month apart. During the rest of the study period (six to eight months), participants followed a daily spiritual practice.
A “spiritual practice” sounds vague, but that’s because this practice will be different for everyone. A spiritual practice might look like sitting meditation, mindful awareness, journaling, or a combination.
Current research suggests that psychedelics and meditation complement each other. They both promote shifts in how a person thinks about themselves and the outside world, which can lead to long-term positive mental and emotional health changes. However, more controlled trials are needed to understand how psychedelic meditation can play a role in psychedelic-assisted therapy.
- Švob Štrac D, Pivac N, Mück-Šeler D. The serotonergic system and cognitive function. Transl Neurosci. 2016;7(1):35-49. doi:10.1515/tnsci-2016-0007
- Carhart-Harris RL, Nutt DJ. Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2017;31(9):1091-1120. doi:10.1177/0269881117725915
- Heuschkel K, Kuypers KPC. Depression, mindfulness, and psilocybin: possible complementary effects of mindfulness meditation and psilocybin in the treatment of depression. A review. Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:224. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00224
- Whitfield-Gabrieli S, Ford JM. Default mode network activity and connectivity in psychopathology. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2012;8:49-76. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032511-143049
- Fox KCR, Dixon ML, Nijeboer S, et al. Functional neuroanatomy of meditation: A review and meta-analysis of 78 functional neuroimaging investigations. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016;65:208-228. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.03.021
- Millière R, Carhart-Harris RL, Roseman L, Trautwein FM, Berkovich-Ohana A. Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1475. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01475
- Brewer JA, Worhunsky PD, Gray JR, Tang Y-Y, Weber J, Kober H. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011;108(50):20254-20259. doi:10.1073/pnas.1112029108
- Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mendenhall CD, Duncan E, Barsalou LW. Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: a fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. Neuroimage. 2012;59(1):750-760. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.008
- Tang Y-Y, Hölzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(4):213-225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916
10. Hölzel B, Ott U. Relationships between meditation depth, absorption, meditation practice, and mindfulness: A latent variable approach. Published online January 1, 2007.
- Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Richards WA, et al. Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2018;32(1):49-69. doi:10.1177/0269881117731279
- Barrett FS, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR. Psilocybin in long-term meditators: Effects on default mode network functional connectivity and retrospective ratings of qualitative experience. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017;171:e15-e16. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.08.058
- Smigielski L, Scheidegger M, Kometer M, Vollenweider FX. Psilocybin-assisted mindfulness training modulates self-consciousness and brain default mode network connectivity with lasting effects. Neuroimage. 2019;196:207-215. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.04.009
- Soler J, Elices M, Dominguez-Clavé E, et al. Four Weekly Ayahuasca Sessions Lead to Increases in “Acceptance” Capacities: A Comparison Study With a Standard 8-Week Mindfulness Training Program. Front Pharmacol. 2018;9:224. doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00224
- Eleftheriou ME, Thomas E. Examining the Potential Synergistic Effects Between Mindfulness Training and Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy. Front Psychiatry. 2021;12:707057. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.707057